Consuela “Sway” Gaines’ calling is to help uplift the voices of others — those of the thousands of formerly incarcerated people in Louisiana.
She spent 22 years in prison herself. In Louisiana, a state once called “the world’s prison capital,” incarceration touches the lives of just about everyone. That rings especially true for Black people, the community most impacted by Louisiana’s criminal justice system.
“Chances are you’re sitting next to someone who had some form of incarceration or was arrested,” Consuela says.
For her, working with Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) doesn’t feel like work: “It’s my passion. It’s my dream, and it’s what I love doing,” she says.
VOTE grew from a grassroots political education campaign behind the prison walls of Angola. The group’s founder, Norris Henderson, served 27 years for a crime he was wrongfully convicted of.
After Consuela’s release, she was connected with VOTE’s statewide organizer, Robert Goodman Jr., now deceased, who took the time to mentor her, regularly driving to Lafayette from New Orleans to train her. When the organization geared up to open a Lafayette chapter, she was a natural fit to lead it.
Since then, her focus has been on informing people of their new voting rights after the 2018 passage of Act 636, which restored voting rights to 40,000 people on probation five years after leaving prison. That number will only grow.
“Some people will be on parole for the rest of their lives,” says Consuela, who herself won’t be released from probation until 2040.
Her work goes beyond formerly incarcerated people — she wants to help dispel the stigma surrounding it. Most who are incarcerated will reintegrate into society, and barriers to employment, housing and community make it much harder.
“When I went to prison, I was only 23 years old. I came out at the age of 45,” she says.
“I have grown and matured in so many ways that if that 23-year-old walked up to me today, I wouldn’t even know who she was.”
Consuela says people’s pasts shouldn’t define them. And if you look beyond the labels, she says, everyone wants the same thing: “We just want to be treated like people.”
Celebrate Consuela and the rest of this year’s honorees Nov. 29 at Moncus Park.